Afloat in the Bowels of the World

Canoing Stillwater Canyon, Green River, UT

June 15-28, 2005

A map of Stillwater Canyon (left) and the Colorado River. Canyonlands NP occupies the area between the rivers and Moab is off the map to the upper right. The large red dots show campsites along the Green and the smaller yellow dots show places where we stopped to explore along the way. We canoed about 53 miles from Mineral Bottom to below the Confluence.

A map of Stillwater Canyon (left) and the Colorado River. Canyonlands NP occupies the area between the rivers and Moab is off the map to the upper right. The large red dots show campsites along the Green and the smaller yellow dots show places where we stopped to explore along the way. We canoed about 53 miles from Mineral Bottom to below the Confluence.

Every summer when I was a lad, my family took long canoe-camping trips. We started when my sister and I were quite young and gradually got more ambitious as we got older. Venues included lakes in Maine, rivers in NH, and combinations of the two in the Adirondaks. They are a cornerstone of my outdoorsy education and some of my fondest memories. Now that we’re both grown, my parents planned a ‘reunion trip’ with our spouses before we all went off and started having kids or whatever. This time, we’d go farther afield and canoe the Green River in southeastern Utah, one of the best flat-water canoeing rivers in North America and one of the wildest places I’ve ever seen. The Green rises in southern Wyoming and flows through winding canyons in the Colorado Plateau where it joins with the mighty Colorado in Canyonlands National Park. We would start at Mineral Bottom, a common put-in spot for the lower Green, and canoe 52 miles down to the Confluence with the Colorado in four nights.

Day 0 – After a feverish day in Boulder of buying and packaging food and making other last-minute arrangements, we set off for points west in a well-stuffed mini-van. The drive down I-70 went as quickly as is possible when you’ve got six people with different bladder and stomache schedules aboard. Amy and I have been this way several times before, but the easterners (my parents from New Hampshire and Emily and Daren from, most lately, Virginia) ogled the scenery as we crossed the entirety of the southern Rockies. With much fanfare, we crossed into Utah and sped through the hot barrenness which I-70 traverses. We turned south and arrived in a swelteringly hot Moab at about 2:30 and immediately headed for the Sand Flats Recreation Area to set up camp for the first night. Amy and I were there last year for some mountain biking and knew the campground. We figured it was a good place for the shake-down camp before we departed for four more nights in the utter wilderness. Camp was established in the sweltering heat and fierce sun, and we retreated to town to make a few more arrangements.

In the late afternoon, we drove up to Arches NP and saw many of the popular driving destinations. I unceremoniously dumped the family out at the upper end of the mile-long Park Avenue trail figuring that this would be a nice, gentle introduction to the desert. I drove the car around to the other side and ran the trail up to meet them. We then wandered back down the wash between towering walls of Wingate Sandstone marveling at the sights and sounds and the sheer alien beauty of it all. From there, it was off (in air-conditioned splendor) to Balanced Rock and the Turret Arch loop trails. Photos were taken and a nice, sweltering time had by all. Finally it was 6pm and time for ice cream. Back to town, to Kaliedascoops, and thence back to camp for dinner.

Day 1 – Dawn came cool and clear and I wandered around on the slickrock for a while looking at all the different tracks in the sand. We ate a quick breakfast and headed off to Tex’s Riverways to get outfitted and transported to the river. In a town full of rafting companies, scenic cruises, and nearly any other sort of highly advertised high-adventure tack you can think of, Tex’s is notable in its understated presentation and peerless reputation. They don’t do whitewater trips and cater to the long-distance paddlers. I would recommend them to anyone.

We picked up a couple key pieces of gear at Tex’s: some dry bags to store our gear in, a second cooler for food, five 6 gallon water cans, a fire pan, and a toilet box. Also, crucially, we picked up a pair of aluminum canoes and a pair plastic touring kayaks. Traditionally, we are a canoe-only family, but Daren and Amy (the recent additions) thought it would be nice to have some paddling options (and it was!).

Devin, minion of Tex’s, gave us a pretty detailed rundown on the places to camp and things to do along the river. He also gave us a memorable introduction to toilet use (“potty training!”). The desert is a fragile environment and you can’t just go anywhere you want (in any sense of the word). Instead we carried a cubical toilet with a firm-fitting lid, carrying handles, and a detachable seat which fit snugly on top. It’s a lot less horrible than it sounds, trust me!

We loaded the boats onto the trailer, ourselves and gear into the van, and set out for Mineral Bottom. The route goes from major road, to minor road, to gravel road across the uplands just north of Canyonlands. The last mile drops down the most spectacularly scary road I’ve ever seen, bar none, switchbacking back and forth in at least a dozen tight, hair-pin turns down the nearly vertical side of the canyon. A pair of twisted metal sculptures, formerly cars, resting amidst and beneath boulders a hundred feet down from the road is a vivid warning of what happens if you get too close to the edge. I’m very glad I wasn’t driving an old van and large trailer down this road but, in truth, being a passenger wasn’t much better! Of course, Devin drives this road practically every day and handled it with ease. We arrived at the Mineral Bottom staging area and set about unloading the boats and packing them with supplies. This is a process that we would get much better at over the next few days as we learned what fit where.

At last, we set out onto the river, Mom and Dad in one canoe, Emily and Daren in the other, and Amy and I in the kayaks. The Green was still swollen from a very wet winter and was high and fast. It’s also habitually very silty and looks uniformly brown. While this sounds less than appealing, it is a nice counterpoint to the red cliffs, the vibrant green tamarisks and other plants on the banks, and the cloudless, cerulean skies. Cicadas chiggered from the shores and there were intermittent buzzings sounding like hoards of angry bees (never did figure out what that was). We drifted along at a terrific pace, paddling occasionally and quickly covered three miles and as many bends in the river. We were alone amidst the mesas and soaring cliffs.

Time for lunch! The challenges in landing for lunch are finding a place to do it and finding it in time to actually get there in the swift current. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a nice, breezy sand bar and beached the boats. Lunch food was produced: cheese, hummus, crackers of various sorts, home made elk jerky, peanut butter, various cookies, and dried fruit. Between munching and swatting mosquitos (which were present in respectable numbers), we dove and splashed in the swift current and kept our feet from sinking too far into the riverbottom mud. This is something else we’d get lots of practice with in the coming days!

Back in the boats and downstream. We passed views of Upheaval Dome to the left and various other side canyons. The banks were generally overgrown with nearly impenetrable shrubbery and occupied by some ferocious mosquitos; it seems strange in a desert to be presented with such profusion of life, but life follows the water and there was a lot of water. Staying in the main current kept you away from the bugs and in the best breezes. The wind kicked up in the afternoon blowing consistently up-river and made the current choppy. Everyone was nervous about camping and whether we’d find something suitable for the night. This was a new environment for all of us.

Finally, after eleven miles, we pulled up at Fort Bottom where the river makes a nearly complete loop around an extensive ‘bottom’ with a small mesa in the center. The campsite, once you got there, was a flat bit of sand in the midst of a high-desert gravel plain. The tamarisks and shrubbery at the rivers edge don’t extend very far vertically above the river, so if you can climb up, you’re likely to find something open enough for three tents. Cacti and scrub brush were a welcome break. We set up the tents and took shelter from the sun under a rocky ledge. This was to become a habit with us, lizardlike, seeking shade during the hottest part of the afternoon and emerging later for exploration and cooking.

By sundown, the temperatures had dropped to a comfortable level. Unfortunately, the wind also dropped to nothing and the mosquitos made an impressive assault on our bodies and sanity. I hurriedly cooked dinner and we stood eating and swatting before retiring to our tents for shelter. We all wondered if the remaining days would be like this and if perhaps being miles from the nearest road like this was really such a good idea.

Day 2 – Morning came and the mosquitos had abated to a more reasonable (but still significant) level. After breakfast, we wandered along a quarter mile of trail to the “Outlaw Cabin”, the ruins of a cabin perched on the flats of Fort Bottom reportedly occupied by Butch Cassidy et al., but actually built by a homesteader a hundred years ago. Roofless, the cabin was still in pretty good shape.

The Fort up close. The taller one is about ten feet tall.

The Fort up close. The taller one is about ten feet tall.

The others turned back, but I had my eyes on the “fort” for which the bottom is named. High on the small mesa at the center of the bottom stood what looked like a stone tower. I followed the trail up the side of the mesa discovering that the whole thing was a good deal smaller and closer than it looked from below. The last twenty feet involved some scrambling up 3rd-class rock, and I emerged on the mesatop. The views were staggering both up and down-river. Morning sun illuminated the mesas in the distance and the river wound out of sight, green and wide. The tower was actually two towers, one short, one tall, constructed by the native Fremont people probably in the neighborhood of a thousand years ago. Whether it was a watchtower or a granary, I have no idea. Fascinating!

The view downstream from Fort Bottom. Spectacular!

The view downstream from Fort Bottom. Spectacular!

We set off from camp, Amy and I in the canoe this time, Daren and Emily in the kayaks, and quickly sped through the terrain I’d spied from atop the mesa earlier. We found a campsite at the riverside and paused for a mid-morning lunch and swim break, followed by more easy paddling. The Buttes of the Cross appeared on the horizon, so named by one-armed ex-Civil War Major and all-around force-of-nature John Wesley Powell in the 1860s because they look like a giant fallen cross of enormous scale. In fact, they are two buttes separated by some distance when seen from the side, but the line of sight illusion is still powerful.

Somewhere in that stretch, the geology of the canyon changed dramatically. It’s hard to ignore the geology when you’re surrounded by thickly-banded rock on all sides. We went from distant, fractured cliffs of red Wingate sandstone to the White Rim sandstone. These cliffs were generally pretty short (perhaps 50′) but they loomed over the river showing strong cross-bedding and coarse grain. As the name implies, they are also cream colored. We crossed from one side of the river to the other cruising under the imposing cliffs and staying in the shadows.

Around two we came to Millard Canyon and a wide break in the White Rim cliffs, a perfect place for lunch and swim break #2. The sun was fierce so Dad employed his powerful retinue of tarp deployment tricks to give us some shade (along with apprentice tarp-slingers Daren and I). We munched, swam, and napped for a blissful hour before getting back on river for another two miles.

Our campsite this time appeared on the other side of the river, just as Amy and I were busy running the roughest section of wind-plus-current chop we saw the entire trip. Paddling like crazy (7 mph), we eddied into the right bank at Anderson Bottom and discovered a lovely campsite in the shade of a mighty cottonwood tree. Anderson Bottom was quite different from Fort Bottom of last night. Here, the river used to make a long, tight turn to the left which was circumvented sometime in the geologically recent past leaving a dry horse-shoe channel full of sand and grasses. We camped at the edge of the old river bed with huge White Rim and Organ Rock shale cliffs across the way and a good view of the Buttes of the Cross.

We established camp and then set out across the riverbed to see the reputed Fremont petroglyphs there. We poked around the cliffs on the north side, enjoying the shade, and discovered that the petroglyphs were actually across the way on the north side of the butte which marked the former island. We re-traversed the riverbed and climbed the steep, loose sand to the base of the cliffs. The petroglyphs were impressive and obvious. The fact that something around a thousand years old is still so untouched and well-presevered after all this time (and human visitation) is impressive.

Back at camp, the sun was still hot and the shade from the cottonwood tree had moved over into the mosquito-infested shrubbery. Dad again deployed the tarp and we sat in its shade swatting and sweating while chili and corn cakes were prepared. Emily’s 30th birthday was coming up and we surprised her with a large brownie, decorated and with candle. She was quite surprised! The mosquitos were better this night, but they still forced us into our tents before dark.

Day 3 – Scheduling-wise, we needed to cover 26 miles in two days to put us in the right position for a pick-up on Day 5. We decided that we’d get an early start and do 15 miles today. Despite the long distance, this was probably the best day of the trip. Shortly after leaving Anderson Bottom, we started looking for the Fremont cliff dwellings that supposedly could be seen on the left shore. A number of piles of rocks and dark alcoves were mistaken for ruins until Emily found the obvious real thing. High up, under an alcove were some walls with a door. The Fremont people must have been incredible climbers, even with ladders, to get in and out of these things!

The canyon swept around in a couple of broad bends under steep cliffs. The White Rim was now high up in the strata and the canyon felt much deeper. We passed a two-story cliff dwelling five miles later obvious in its red sandstone nook. Daren found a rough trail and we all trooped through hot brush to see it. Up close, it was a lot smaller than it looked from the river. Not only must the Fremont have been incredible climbers, they must not have been at all claustrophobic!

Another few miles later, we swept around the impressive Turks Head where the river cuts nearly all the way around a tall mesa capped with White Rim sandstone. The river in this lower canyon was distinctly different from a day or two ago. The cliffs rose to impressive heights and the shore was more often steep/vertical rock than the tamarisk and mud we’d seen before. Small side canyons entered without fanfare and the river made unexpected bends in the most unusual places. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have expected roaring cataracts around every bend. Occasionally we could see up above the rim to see that there were still more cliffs rising higher than those immediately surrounding the river. The world could have ended up there for all we knew, drifting along in our narrow channel. We stopped for second lunch and swim at Deadhorse Canyon, a low side canyon on the right and climbed to a spacious, shady overhang on the south side to wait-out the heat of the day. Daren and I scrambled around while the others read and napped.

The view up-river from our afternoon napping cave in Deadhorse Canyon.

The view up-river from our afternoon napping cave in Deadhorse Canyon.

Back on the river, we paddled another five miles to Horse Canyon and our third campsite. Despite maps and everything, Horse Canyon appeared suddenly as a lagoon behind a sandbar, surrounded by tarmarisk and mud. I wasn’t optimistic, but scouted out the wide stream anyway. Just as the water ended and became cloying, sucking mud, I found a wide sandy shelf a few feet above water level. Plenty of room for several tents and evidence of previous use. This must be the spot! Sheer red walls 200′ high and perhaps as far apart curved around to the left out of sight. We were in our own little world of shade, echos, and, most amazingly of all, no mosquitos! At all! Stunning!

Amy, Emily and I went back to the canyon mouth for one final swim while Daren did his best to catch some fish (no luck!). When we returned, Mom was busy cooking up the burritos. We opened the box of wine and I built a fire discovering in the process how ferociously flamable desert-dry wood is (wow!). We sat contentedly by the fire, enjoying burritos, sipping wine from plastic cups, and the hearing the canyon wren as the nearly-full moon rose over the rim. If I’ve stayed at a better campsite, I certainly don’t remember it. The moon made things so bright, I never even bothered to break out my headlamp. Wow.

Horse canyon ends at this 50' overhanging waterfall. Spectacular place, but definitely the end of the road for us.

Horse canyon ends at this 50′ overhanging waterfall. Spectacular place, but definitely the end of the road for us.

Day 4 was to be a relatively leisurely 10 mile day so we took our time waking up in the marvelous Horse Canyon. After breakfast, we explored up-canyon a ways walking the gravel and sand bed of what must be a spectacular wash for a few hours a year. The canyon snaked left, then right before abruptly ending in a 50′ tall, overhanging wall, obviously carved by an intermittent waterfall. Tracks of all sorts of creatures could be seen in the sand and we spent half an hour poking around the piles of drift wood and unearthly rocks. The sun was well up by now, but didn’t reach into the depths quite yet. The world was pleasantly small and cool.

Emerging from Horse Canyon ready for another day on the river.

Emerging from Horse Canyon ready for another day on the river.

When we finally hit the river again, we navigated another few miles before coming on Jasper Canyon, home of more ruins. Fueled by our successes of yesterday in ruin hunting, Amy and I paddled up the increasingly muddy Jasper Creek before setting out on foot. We immediately sank in to our shins in mud the consistency of jello. Once on firmer ground, I hared off upstream climbing a series of short rock steps and arriving at a huge amphitheater of stone. If I were a native builder, I’d have put my ruin up here, but there was nothing in evidence. Nevertheless, there was a beautiful pool nestled in the rock and dripping water from a hundred feet above carved interesting patterns in the sand. A magical place. I scrambled back over a ridge to yell to the others that they should come up only to see them purposefully heading south. Amy, apparently, had found the actual ruins much closer to the river. Full of sand and grime, I arrived back at the canoes and we trekked over to the old granary in its cliffside nook. This one was not nearly as high up the cliff and we could clearly see the wooden log over the doorway, still looking great after a thousand odd years of sun and wind. Across the canyon, the ruins of a few walls showed the location of another fort, but not the way to easily get there. We retreated under another overhang and had a long lunch and rest break.

Devin had told us that there were three canyons on river-right which were particularly worthwhile to explore in the lower part of the river. Horse Canyon was one, and Jasper Canyon the second. Both were blocked after half a mile by unclimbable cliffs. The third was Water Canyon, our destination for the day and final campsite. He said that Water Canyon was not blocked by the usual overhanging cliff and you could hike 20 miles up its drainage. We arrived at Water Canyon to see not a cliff face, but an impenetrable growth of trees blocking any obvious access. Amy and I landed upstream and I hiked up onto a rim in the relentless sun. There were two small campsites perched there which looked useable but relatively uninteresting. I followed the trail a quarter mile up-canyon and saw no break in the trees between the narrow, cactus-laden rims.

Meanwhile, Daren proceeded downstream and found a brushy entrance to a really gorgeous waterway tight under the left edge of the canyon, towered over by an overhanging chert conglomerate cliff. Thus committed, we worked our way up this, fending off sticks and rocks until the water ended. Daren came back and reported on a lovely sandy campsite a bit off the water. We followed and found a lovely sand hump in the middle of the canyon beyond the trees I’d seen from above and between two dry washes from the upper canyon.

Trudging around up here was hot, dirty work and we didn’t fancy washing in the stagnant mud of the nearest water. Our initial landing was much better in terms of swimming, but was probably half a mile away. Daren scouted a path on the low rim on the south while I worked on the low road through the brush. He found a nice viewpoint, but nothing with water access. I found a faint trail along the base of the northern wall which quickly became extremely impassible. I free-climbed the wall at the most likely looking spot (still a heart-pounding endeavor on razor-sharp rocks in sandals to a cactus-armored rim) and gained the upper trail I’d scouted before. At least I knew that went to water! Coming back, Daren directed me to the trail he’d used to get up to the rim.

To get to the swimming beach, we had to first trek up-canyon to the place where the water from above dropped down a grey, smooth chute into a shaddowy pool. The chute was easy enough to climb and lead to a beautiful moonscape of sculpted rock and winding pools of standing water. From here, the trail led back to the right along the exposed rim of the canyon, past lush cacti and finally, after a lot of up and down, to the beach. After a lovely soak, we returned to camp via the same path. Amy worked on the tent while Mom and I made up dinner of curried rice and mushrooms. The setting wasn’t quite as spectacular as Horse Canyon, but the mosquitos were still absent and there were plenty of interesting places to explore. Our last night on the river!

watercyntentpanDay 5 – I arose around 6 and, as is my custom when camping, spent a while wandering in the dawn light. To my surprise, the water chute at the head of the lower canyon was flowing with water this morning and the dried algae of yesterday was vibrant and green. And slippery! Ascending the chute was more challenging this time. The lighting in the open country above the chute was spectacular and I spent quite a while taking pictures and poking around. Water flowed from here and there into the stream bed and the glassy-smooth ponds now showed small ripples from the flowing water. In the process, I got probably half a mile up from the camp and found that there was reasonable trail the whole way. The canyon bifurcated and the north side ended in the usual cliff. But the south side continued up and up to the rim country and the Maze district of Canyonlands National Park.

Morning at Water Canyon

Morning at Water Canyon

Returning to camp, we ate a leisurely breakfast of whatever was left in the coolers and packed the boats for the last time. The final 4.5 miles of river went too swiftly and soon we emerged into the Colorado at the Confluence. We’d heard various rumors that the Colorado was a lot faster and more turbulent than the Green and that we’d have to wear life jackets and stick close to the shore. In fact, the Colorado was smaller, slower, and calmer than the Green and appeared no less silt-laden. The walls here were impressively tall and the strata finally showed some variation from nearly horizontal.

The jet boat would pick us up somewhere in the four mile stretch between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom. Below that was the first of a long series of serious cataracts that we didn’t really want to encounter. We continued down from the Confluence about a mile until we found a nice rock extending into the water. The time was about 10:30 and we had an hour or two before the jetboat arrived. This was spent finishing off the last of the lunch food, cleaning the boats of four days of accumulated mud and dead insects, and diving giddily off the rock into the current and being swept into the eddy. A large motorized raft came by headed for the rapids and we all jumped and waved like loons thinking it was the jet boat. After all these days alone, the sight of other people was pretty exciting. When the jetboat actually arrived, there was no doubt. This thing was loud and fast. Devin pulled up to our rock and let out the four tourists that had come along for the ride. We alternated loading things onto the boat with diving in the water a few more times.

Canoes and kayaks lashed on the roof and gear stowed up front, we started up the Colorado toward Moab, showers, and air conditioning. Devin piloted us at speeds of 25 mph or higher keeping a sharp eye out for floating sticks (which jam the engine). The canyon passed by so fast it was hard to take it all in. Compared to the Green, the Colorado was incredibly crowded. More motorized rafts were seen and smaller craft of all description rocked in our mighty wake. There were single-person rafts loaded with incredible quantities of gear, canoes, kayaks, and even one guy riding an inflatable whale pool toy. We stopped at the half-way point for a bathroom break (and the requisite swim) and met a pair of rental jeeps loaded with grossly fat people; it was like meeting some alien species. Clearly our reintegration into polite society would be a rough one.

A mile short of Potash and the take-out, after nearly a hundred miles of stick-free driving, Devin hit his first stick and the jet boat motor started making horrible noises. After various gymnastics, the stick floated loose and we continued on. Half a mile later, we hit a second stick. The same routine followed and Devin finally pulled out the stick for us to see. It was about the size of a potato chip! Wow!

At Potash, we transferred to a bus and loaded the jet boat onto the trailer. It’s easier to tow the whole boat and trailer on the road than it is to pilot the remaining ten miles of river and apparently gets better gas milage as well. Back to Tex’s at highway speed. Unloading gear, checking into a motel, showers, food, ice cream, and a long, deep sleep.

After all these years of growing up and pursuing our own destinies, it’s nice to get back to my roots and bond with my family. We’ve come a long way from the shores of Lake Azooscohos, adding spouses, new traditions, and greater ambition, but in some ways, nothing at all has changed. Floating for five days through the bowels of the earth was a humbling, wonderful experience, far from civilization and distraction. The beauty of the desert is subtle and stark, but all around.  Great, exhausting trip!

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